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Published: Thursday, 10/23/2008

TARTA gets earful of user complaints at hearings

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

While a lunchtime hearing yesterday was intended to receive testimony about the future of public transportation in the Toledo area, rider grievances about recent service cuts and other Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority shortcomings dominated the discussion.

During a second hearing last night in Perrysburg on the "Comprehensive Operations Analysis" a TARTA consultant is doing, the discussion focused more on Perrysburg's future without TARTA should city leaders successfully withdraw from the transit authority.

Options for redrawing TARTA's route map and potentially extending buses into parts of the area now unserved are on the table as Parsons Brinckerhoff, a Cleveland-based transit authority consultant, embarks on its study that also will look at how local transit is funded, said Tim Rosenberger, the consultant's project manager.

"Our main goal, over the next two months, is to develop a new TARTA transit system," he told a small Perrysburg audience.

Several audience members who spoke were more concerned with what service Perrysburg might provide in TARTA's place should that city's council pass a pending withdrawal resolution, which would then be subject to approval by the transit authority's board and other agency member communities.

Mike Olmstead, a council member in attendance, promised that should Perrysburg pull out of TARTA, it would start a replacement service of some kind the next day.

But the nature and extent of any locally managed transit remains to be worked out, he said.

During the lunchtime hearing at SeaGate Centre in downtown Toledo, Don Morrow, who lives on Western Avenue, said his biggest problem with TARTA is the little, if any, service to major suburban employers like the Wal-Mart in Sylvania Township or The Shops at Fallen Timbers in Maumee.

He said he lost a job opportunity at the former because he couldn't take the bus there, and used to ride regularly to jobs at the now-vacant Southwyck Shopping Center before its remaining stores moved. Service hubs "should be concentrated at places like Franklin Park mall, Wal-Mart on Holland-Sylvania Road, and Meijer," Mr. Morrow said, and with round-the-clock buses to accommodate those who work evening or night shifts.

But others suggested that TARTA shouldn't be considering service expansion, or funding requests to pay for it, until it straightens out existing shortcomings like buses that are early, late, or don't show up at all, and customer-service staff who can't find bus schedules or, worse, give out wrong information.

"You just can't count on TARTA to get you where you're going when you need to get there," said Zenola Sherman, of West Toledo. "There have been opportunities for years to address these issues."

Others questioned why, if service cuts imposed in August were driven by rising fuel prices, those cuts haven't been reinstated now that fuel prices have fallen.

And William Bockert, also of West Toledo, deemed a proposed shift from property levies to a sales tax a potential end-run around periodic ballot approvals required by property taxes. "You're not going to sell us on a tax levy that you won't have to listen to us for," Mr. Bockert said, addressing TARTA officials in the room.

"That's why the other communities don't want you because they know how screwed up you are and how arrogant you are," Mr. Bockert said.

"We're getting a lot of feedback from passengers," James Gee, the transit authority's general manager, said after the midday hearing.

"The service cuts were necessary. We're looking at a more out-of-downtown focus for our service so we can deliver the labor force to suburban jobs. We think it's beneficial for [the consultants] doing the work to hear these comments."

Mr. Rosenberger described fuel's recent price decline as a "downward blip" that is unlikely to persist over the long run.

To Mr. Morrow's complaint, Mr. Rosenberger responded that some often-requested destinations are outside TARTA's current service area, which is one of the key situations his firm's study will cover.

Unlike most Ohio transit systems, whose local subsidies come from countywide sales taxes, TARTA collects a property tax in its nine member communities.

That limits where buses can go to a degree other systems don't face, Mr. Rosenberger said.

With few exceptions, neither TARTA buses nor vehicles belonging to subsidiary Toledo Area Regional Paratransit Service may carry passengers outside that area to such destinations as the Spring Meadows shopping plaza, Woodville Mall, or Oregon.

Earlier this decade, the transit authority introduced service to Toledo Express Airport using a loophole that the airport property, while outside those nine communities, is owned by the city of Toledo, but the route fared poorly perhaps, in part, because it couldn't go to the BAX Global cargo hub nearby or stop in Springfield Township along the way.

Mr. Rosenberger said his firm expects to release preliminary recommendations in January and a complete "10-year plan" for TARTA by March.

The study is budgeted at $120,000, all covered by a Federal Transit Administration planning grant.

A third and final hearing in the series is scheduled for 6 p.m. Nov. 5 in the Sylvania branch of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, 6749 Monroe St.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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